Alan Alda's Challenge: Can you Explain Sound to an 11-Year-Old?

boys playing with sound
(Image credit: pio3 |

Scientists, it's time to lend your ears (and your knowledge) to this year's big science competition: Explaining the science of sound to 11-year-olds.

The winning answer will help not only children across the world understand sound, but also the contest's founder, actor Alan Alda. Alda is known for his work on the TV series "M*A*S*H" and "The West Wing," and now heads the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Since 2012, the center has organized an annual competition, asking scientists — be they graduate students, professors or retired — to explain complicated concepts in an engaging and easy-to-understand way. Hundreds of researchers have stepped forward, answering questions about color, sleep, time and flame. [Easy Answers to the Top 5 Science Questions Kids Ask]

In fact, Alda started the competition based on an experience he had at age 11. He remembers asking his teacher to explain flame, and she responded with one word: oxidation.

"I never got a good explanation," Alda told Live Science last year. "I didn't know what oxidation was. Oxidation was just another word for me."

Alan Alda is asking scientists to explain the science of sound to 11-year-olds. (Image credit: Courtesy of Alan Alda)

Years later, he started the contest as a way to engage 11-year-olds in science, and to connect scientists with the next generation. Each year, children submit questions they want answered. Alda presents the winning question to scientists, and asks that they submit a 300-word explanation, a graphic response or a 5-minute video explaining the concept.

"There are so many ways in which sounds affect us, so many ways that different animals use sound, and so many kinds of sound," Alda said in a statement. "I can't wait to see how creatively scientists will explain exactly what sound is. The kids and I are all ears."

Entries will be judged by 11-year-olds around the world. Two winning scientists — one with a written entry and one with a video or graphic entry — will receive a $1,000 cash prize and a free trip to New York City, where they will meet Alda at the 2016 World Science Festival.

More than one child asked, "what is sound," and all of them are looking forward to an answer, including Aidan Green, a fifth-grader from Maungatapu Primary School in Tauranga, New Zealand.

"I like to listen to the sounds around me and wonder how they all sound different" Aidan said in a statement. "What makes them do that?"

He added that "we have a student who is currently having double cochlear implants and we have been told that he will hear things differently now, than when he just had hearing aides. How does that work?"

The contest deadline is 11:59 p.m. EST on Jan. 19, 2016. Learn more about the rules at the center's website.

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.